Tag Archives: family

all the girls were Princess Leia

Good morning good morning. I woke up this morning to a dark orange shard pushing up over the Oakland hills, announcing the arrival of the sun. Out front of the house, in the lucky garden, one of the nasturtium plants has opened a single, sunrise-colored flower. Welcome to May – what beauty have you seen already today?

Those Santa Ana winds knocked me out yesterday (do we call them Santa Anas up here in Northern California, or is that just a SoCal thing?) — I spent most of the day laid out on the couch, watching movies and resting. It’s as if those strong, hot winds just reached inside my bones, took all my energy away, and replaced it with feverishness and ache. Today I’m feeling better (though still taking things slow), grateful for slightly cooler weather, and am thinking about remembering.

Yesterday I watched a number of movies — Crooklyn, Ordinary People, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Red Hook Summer — while I was crashed out on the couch. Three were period movies — set in the 60s, 70s, and 80s — and the last is meant to be present day Red Hook, in Brooklyn. Miraculously, only one of these films showed any sexual violence, and it was the last one I might have expected. (I’m going to have to write more about Red Hook Summer in another post.)

What do I want to say about these movies? They had me thinking about family and connectedness and struggle — about what story would I tell about my sister and I back in the 70s, about our life with our friends in the country between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, in 1975, 76, 77. What would I tell about our clothes, our haircuts, the shoes we wore, about the David (or was it Shawn?) Cassidy posters on our friends’ walls? How would I show my mother — not working outside the home, lodged in a newly-built salt-box country house, raising a garden and two girls, trying on vegetarianism in the land of cattle farmers and beef, making roadtrips into the city to visit the natural foods store, where we got samples of kefir from the shopkeeper who looked like Mr. Hooper. Could I give you her berkenstock sandals, her tall boots with the square heels, her bell bottoms and her halter tops? Could I give you her hair folded up into a bun like the drawings of the women in the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, and, later, her hair in a short bob that she curled under at the bottom? Could I give you how we ran around through the open space of one another’s back yards, the lack of fences, the way the wheat fields towered over us in the summertime? Could I give all of that back to myself? We raced, played tag, played with the neighbor’s much coveted slip-n-slide; my mom picked mint from the patch at the side door for her sun tea. We made snow angels in the wintertime and wore fat red children’s skis to slide over the little hill down into the drainage ditch.

All of this lives in the story of Before. I could call it a story that needs resurrecting, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually dead. Sometimes we can put something down for years, decades, and think that it has died, when in fact it’s simply living quietly in the lining of your breath, in your cells, never abandoned you, never died away.

The story of Before stretches until 1982 — that’s when I met my stepfather. Everything else is After.

But Before still matters; it still exists, it still lives, still is part of my infrastructure. Monarch butterflies in the roadside sunflowers. Splashing in the blow-up pool on the patio out the sliding-glass back door. Churning vanilla ice cream in the wooden bucket filled with ice and rock salt. Smells of charcoal and lighter fluid. Body achy after a day running in the sun. Hide and seek. Fingers and tongue turned purple with dye from mulberries. Exquisite boredom. My parents’ deep silences that infuse around every memory. They put me on a bus one day in 1977 and then I was off to the Waverly Elementary School. On the bus, the driver played top-40 songs on the radio, and we kindergartners played doctor in the way back of the bus on the way home at midday. We stared out the windows at the long stretches of barely-undulant farmland, at the long trains railroading alongside us; we put our arms out the half-windows and tried to the the long-haul truckers to blow their airhorns for us. The bus smelled like cleaning fluid and those new leather seats.

I don’t remember getting home from school. I don’t remember family dinners. I don’t remember birthdays or Christmases. I remember one weeknight getting to stay up late to watch the Wizard of Oz on network television —we ate pancakes in our pajamas, at suppertime! All of us were there, all four in this family of quiet, sitting on shag carpet and the rough couch. The tv was a little box with rabbit-ear antennas. We changed the channel with the knob. We were in heaven, weren’t we, my sister and I? Didn’t we know we had everything? Didn’t my parents know that we had everything? On the playground at recess the kids played Star Wars — all the girls were Princess Leia. We spun and spun on the old metal merry-go-round, holding fast to the bars, pretending we were careening through space on the Millennium Falcon. My mother took me to see the movie when I was five — I don’t remember. She tells the story now with laughter, evident pleasure in the memory, how inappropriate it was for a five year old, how I shouted out, didn’t understand, asked her to explain what was happening, hid from Darth Vader.

Later, in the After, I didn’t ask her to explain, and there turned out to be no place to hide from the villain. The bad man got into everywhere. And even so — even still — he did not mange to uproot all of the Before from my bones. I just put it away for safekeeping, protection. I re-meet Before when I knead whole-wheat bread like my mother did, or push the lawnmower like my father did, or dust garden soil from my knees like my mother did, or run hard up city neighborhood sidewalks like that little girl did — hair streaming behind her, arms open to morning, the dust of butterfly wings and buttercups beneath her chin.


extra:ordinary – creating safe haven

(So many thanks to Crystal Loya for our next extra:ordinary project story (stories from our community of our recovery, resistance and resilience). Find out more about Crystal’s work at https://www.facebook.com/theladieswiththe.scars)

I myself being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a family member experienced first hand what life would be with no support in recovery after a traumatic situation. As a child at the age of eight as I lay in my bed sleeping before the following day of school I was awoken to a hand touching my body. Not being close to my mother and experiencing emotional abuse from her I had no were to turn. As the abuse progressed I was so scared as a child to speak out about the sexual abuse I kept to myself in fear of what else would be done to me. One day after coming out to my mother about the sexual abuse that was tacking place by an older sibling, the whole situation tore the family completely apart. There were no more family events, no talks about how to deal and the abuse had no fix, then come to find out other family members had been sexually abused by the same person. There was no help in our family home, and due to the lack of communication there was no healing as a family. At the age of fourteen I left home began employment and began to cross obstacles and the healing process alone, I never looked for comfort in my family nor did I ever see my violator again.. Being so young I had no clue how to even get help once I got older. At the age of seventeen I vowed to open a non profit one day to help survivors and children of sexual abuse. The safe haven would make individuals more aware of the American Statistical Association by the U.S department of justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. I will follow out the plan for the five year goal that includes a safe haven for women and in the future an opening for male survivors. Childhood victims increase every year I will use my degree to pursue the safe haven and child sexual abuse.

(Want to share your story of resilience and resistance? See the call for contributions here!)

this family I’ve been dancing around the edges of

Good morning this Wednesday morning. Where I am, the sun is still behind the thick early fog; even the Oakland hills aren’t quite visible yet. The puppy is at my feet, chewing away at her toy tire, and my morning candle is a needed thing in this just-undusk.

What does family mean to you? Could it ever mean anything uncomplicated again?

This morning, I would like to bake bread: turn on the radio and dial the tuner to an NPR station, get out the hand mixer, and toss the oats and honey and yogurt and blackened bananas and nutmeg and salt and baking soda into a bowl — I’d like to be preparing something to feed your family. I’d like to prepare something to feed this little family that I am dancing around on the edges of. I’d like a slow morning, with laughter and investigation and silliness — everybody reading their own piece of the paper, sharing sections aloud, asking what the others think, while the puppy takes up her place on the living room carpet and disassembles her toy.

There’s something I would like to write about family, but it’s not quite time yet. There are some topics that are private, are for inside writing, are for notebooks and handwritten journals.

This is what I will tell you: I have generally felt, since 1994, that I was outside of family, that I didn’t belong to the body of anybody’s blood. Do you know what I mean? Family became an abstract word to me, a sort of violence that I no longer had to participate in because I had been ejected. I walked away. Of course that’s not true: I didn’t just walk; I ran. Family was never an abstract violence; it had come to mean either abandonment or captivity and terror. The second ten years of my life managed to wholly undermine and undo the lessons of the first ten years, which had taught me that family meant pleasure, safety, silence, worry, and laughter.

Last week I spent time with my blood family: my father, my sister, their partners. We met at the top of the middle of the country and spent several days generally adoring one another’s company. We ate together, drove out into rainstorms and then were finally safe enough with each other that we could huddle together in a tiny space, to get away from the hail, without feeling at risk. Let me not use that royal we — I had to sit in a tiny space in the front of my dad’s wife’s jeep, wedged between my sister and her husband on one side and my father in the driver’s seat, and nothing in me was afraid or on alert. I am only just realizing this now, five days later. In the moment, when my body was shoved close to my sister’s and my father’s, I didn’t feel anything but amusement at the situation and a general (normal?) satisfaction at being with them.

It didn’t used to be this way. For years I was uncomfortable being too close to my sister — I was afraid that my very presence would do a violence to her. I was hyperaware of where her body was in relationship to mine.

And in the early part of this journey away from trauma, when my father and I became aware of how broken our relationship was (after the conversation in (was it?) 1995 or 1996 when I had to tell him (my sister told him first, she broke the ice, she was the brave one) what had happened to us when we were out of his custody and being kept away from him at our mother’s husband’s house) — how do you use those sorts of words with your father? How do you find the language to describe to your father — he who had been meant to protect you — what you had to do to and beneath a grown man’s body? Talk about unspeakable. I kept most of the words to myself; he heard them when my statement was read into the court record in lieu of testimony, during my stepfather’s trial. I spent those years keeping a distance from my father’s body. I forgot — or it was no longer an option to remember, and so I released — a child’s easy comfort with a parent’s physical being.

Do you know what it’s like to be jealous of a young boy leaning in on his mother’s body, like that’s a safe place for him? Like that’s a place he deserves to belong?

My family and I have been working at this thing of reconnection and recovery for a long time. We have worked at this thing of reclaiming a sense of family that is safe and possible, both new and old. During our days together last week, I felt a new (or old?) kind of ease around them: there were no major meltdowns, no massive triggers, and, this time, the tears that came were mostly joyful ones. And I sat in that jeep, pressed close to my father’s body, and smelled the cologne that he’s worn all of his life and felt only familiarity and gratitude.

There were years when I could not have imagined this, when I thought family would always and only mean loss. Now I am wondering about something new.


her garden is my best hope

Good morning, you gorgeousness out there. It’s all sun and cool breeze and spring open outside the window, almost warm enough to take the notebook out write directly into morning. My mother writes a couple of days ago to tell me that it snowed back home in Nebraska — in May. It’s just not right. I look out at my garden while we’re texting back and forth, I think of the lettuces, the spinach and broccoli and herbs that we’re already harvesting; I think of the tiny green tomato taking shape on the vine. I remember how devastating it used to be, when I was living in Maine, when the crocus were well blooming and the redbuds had taken firm hold on the maples and I’d begun to trust that finally, finally, spring had arrived — my bones could relax. And then, boom, more snow.

I don’t tell my mom that I spent her snow day out in the sun. She has only just begun to set out her garden — has the potatoes in, is turning over the wintered soil to prepare the space for her many tomato plants, the okra and eggplant, all the annual flowers. Her garden is my best hope. It’s from my mother’s gardening that I learned about the longevity of faith, about persistence of effort, about doing it anyway. She kept a garden all the way through until the very end of the time with her abusive second partner; through all his control and rabid mania, through his sobbing manipulations, through the spending that forced her to work more and more hours trying to reconcile the books and accounts that he refused to be responsible for, through the hostility and hatefulness that he forced her to refer to as love, through all the behind-closed-doors horror that she has never described to me,  she found time to hold on to her connection to the earth, to find solace in a thumb so green she could lift life from a toxic wasteland (which, it turned out, she would have to learn to do).

I don’t know how late into that marriage she kept her garden. I don’t know if her tomatoes were putting out fruit when he was arrested for incest and child sexual abuse, and she was arrested alongside him as an accessory after the fact. I don’t remember, just now, what time of year it was, and I’d been away from home for a few years: he may have driven her away from her garden, the way he’d driven her from cooking and baking and writing, the deep loam of her creative life.

I don’t know what it meant to her that he was not arrested or charged or held to any account for what he did to her.

What I know is that my mother gardens now. After many years rebuilding herself — sharing home with others, cocooning in an old Omaha red-brick apartment building, over a Czech restaurant — she offers her words into the world again, she bakes bread for every family gathering, and she has her own home with a garden she can shape any way she wishes. No one can tell her what to plant or not to plant, or where, or how. At any hour, during the spring and summer and fall, her neighbors find her there, in her sunhat and shorts, pulling weeds, tending to the herbs, talking to the skunk under the porch or the squirrels that want into her birdfeeder or the butterflies that find their way to her flowers — she has shaped her whole wide yard into garden.

And for all my disappointment and loss, for all that we struggle still to find a way to each other as honest and open mother and daughter in the aftermath of the betrayal that that man demanded of both of us, still when I go out into the gardens now I am following in her footsteps. I am listening her tell my much younger self how to set out the plants, how to water, how to tend. I am listening to her example: how she fingered the leaves, whispered to each new seedling, welcomed all the life that found its way into the soil she’d taken responsibility for. Later today, I’ll bake bread for a friend — and I will remember watching my young mother at the counter in a new house in the farmlands of Nebraska, how she put her whole body into her kneading and how, now that I am years older than she was then, and in spite of all that came between, I am still learning from her examples.

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I didn’t imagine I’d write about this when I set my timer for twenty minutes today. Do you have something surprising rising in you to write today? Give yourself fifteen minutes at least, take a coffee break and a notebook, head out to the breakroom or the back of your building, and drop into the words. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

I’m grateful, today, for the way you make room for what’s complicated about what and who you love.  I’m grateful for your spaciousness, and I’m grateful for your words.

sister stories that continue

Good morning — it’s dark out there, and I can hear the helicopters. Or maybe that’s just my old refrigerator readying for takeoff.  I’m not awake enough to say for sure.

Not enough sleep last night and here I am awake this morning into the blog instead of the notebook, wanting to talk about sistering and change. This weekend I heard a story about a long waiting, about barrenness and believing for a long time that there will only be barrenness, that nothing (after trauma) can bear fruit — and finding, after a long waiting, that there is a flower where before there were only bare branches; finding an orchard of beauty to feed you where for years before you had found only wishes and loss.

This will be short this morning, as there’s a lot to do today, beginning with some rest and replenishment time. This weekend my sister came to see me and we were safe together. We held space with and for one another. After years of being afraid that we would never be healed enough to be close again, I felt comfort and ease in her presence (and in my body when we were together). This is so deep and new that I can’t quite find words for it yet — what’s new is the part inside me understanding that we are ok. Not that we will be ok — that we are. Continue reading

can we heal what family means?

Katie Ward Knutson, Metro II

Good morning on this quiet and sunny Tuesday morning. How is your heart speaking to you in this moment? Are there words or stories that your fingers are ready to unfurl onto the page? Did your dreams bring offerings that you’d like to be able to remember? I’m slowly, reluctantly, moving through my stretches, and feeling the resistance build in my shoulders. I don’t want to have to stretch before I write, and yet that’s the body I inhabit right now. What happens when we let ourselves be exactly as we are? What energy gets released when we stop trying to pretend like we’re already someone or somewhere else?

Today I am full of questions and mourning and loss. Today I am wondering about family, how we learn to exclude ourselves from it, and how we unlearn the lessons about family that came to us when we were children: that family is not safe, is a site of abandonment and/or control, and is better shunned at all costs. Today I don’t know how to participate in family, and am feeling that place of separation and longing. Continue reading

the calculus of resilience

graffiti of green balloons, a person grabbed on to one, next to the words "schnapp dir auch einen!"

(grab one, too!)

In my dream I had signed up for a tennis tournament, even though I 1) didn’t have any clothes to wear for such a thing, and 2) didn’t actually know how to play. I put off and put off letting them know that I couldn’t participate, and wasn’t at all sure that I wouldn’t take my turn, let my ass get kicked, and then just be done with it. In my dreams, as in my real life, I often like to wait and see what’s going to happen.

I am moving through a small depression here, one that has allowed me to rally for workshops and love, but still sinks down into my bones when I’m alone, that brings with it the messages of persistent failure and sadness. I had such big plans for the months of November and December, such bright visions for the first part of 2013, and now everything has changed. I’m overwhelmed by the work emails and phone calls that are waiting for me — it’s almost time just to wipe the decks clean and start over — and I’m missing the friends and community I’ve been mostly out of touch with since the back spasm at the beginning of November. Physically, I am worlds better than I was even a week ago, and I can see light at the end of this tunnel — but that means it’s time to get back in the saddle, and that still hurts.

This morning, however, my little orange apartment actually feels like Christmas. There are bunches of wrapped packages of cookies, homemade xmas cards, wrapping materials (both new and saved/scavenged), a small rosemary bush snipped into the shape of a fir tree (draped with small Tibetan prayer flags), and a few cards from friends and family. Continue reading

honoring what’s died

graffiti of skeletons holding handsThis morning it’s hard to get out of the nest. The candles don’t pull me, and I lie there cuddled in with the words from a maybe dream. In my dream, my writing persona had two parts, each with its own name. In my dream I knew each of their names. Something like Lillian and Ruth, but I don’t think that’s right. One side was more linear, or performative, the side that sat down to generate words for public viewing, the side that rafted the writing like an editor. The other part was the organic side, the part that let words flow, the part that tapped into the long seam of imagery and possibility living somewhere inside our psyche and let the writing flow from there — the side for whom writing is a swirl, a vein, an immersion, a mess.

This morning I am thinking about the personae, the selves, and the dead — and I want to know how we can honor all of it. Continue reading

an impossible intimacy

graffiti of blue bandaids, one crossed over the other to make an x, on a brick wallgood morning good morning. I am in the aftermath of mom time. I am in my small room and trying to make sense of this life I am just now choosing for myself. In the dream last night someone was mugged, a woman had been hurt and we were doing a fundraiser for her maybe. I woke up and told the story of the dream to myself so that I would remember but all I have now is the word mugged, some sense of aftermath, people taking care of her, a sense of threat, we weren’t safe, it could happen again.

After I drop my mother off at the airport, I go to a coffee shop in a shopping mall, I order tea and sit outside in the breezy afternoon sun, I think I’m going to pour myself into writing but I can barely breathe. Next to me, a small family, a man and a woman and a very tall girl child. She looks like a great dane puppy, all muscles and flop, surely an athlete; she drapes herself over her mother, wraps her arms around her mother’s smaller shoulders. I wonder, what is it like to be the one trying for mother’s affection, to want your body in such proximity to the body that formed you, the body that drew you up, the body that let you go. What is it like to have that feel ok, to have such closeness be a welcome thing, to not have to shutter myself off inside, away from the vulnerability that opens in me just by being in her presence? Continue reading

letting them (and ourselves) be real

graffiti in red of a girl with a heart in a word-bubble over her headgood morning good morning! Oh, it’s late here — I set the alarm for 4:30, but when the puppy woke me up after 6, I looked over to see that perhaps that alarm had gone off, but my sleeping self had taken no notice whatsoever. After a full (and mostly offline) weekend, I guess my body took what she needed.

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Write Whole begins again this evening, and April’s Writing the Flood is this weekend (join us!) — lots more coming up, too, including a new daily blog project for May, which I’m very excited and a little nervous about! It’s going to be kind of like NaNoBloMo, with a twist.

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This morning I woke up thinking about my father singing one of his own songs: Dance Dixie Dance Dixie Dance / Don’t miss your very last chance… What a thing, to wake up with your father’s music on your lips, and be glad of it.

This weekend I went on a bit of a road trip with a friend, and she was in charge of picking out music, since I was driving. We wanted music to sing along to, with the windows down and the wind everywhere around us. I only ever do big-voice singing when I ‘m in the car, and I wanted to let something out. We got a little of The Story, Greg Greenway, something else, and then she pulled out a cd that had written on it Dad Songs 1980s. I said, Oh, that will probably be good, go ahead and put that in.

My dad makes mix cds now and again, made one for me when I was on the first Body Heat tour so that we had some good folks music to listen to while we careened, sick and exhausted and delirious, through the midwest. They’re often hard for me to listen to, my dad’s mix cds; the songs are poignant and remind me of him, of the time Before, of when he played guitar for us on the weekends and we knew his singing voice like we knew the lining of our own arms, intimate and familiar and tendering and welcome. I usually start to cry about halfway into the first verse of the first song on the cd, and have to turn it off. It can take me years to listen all the way to music that my dad sends to me. He sent me a song some years ago — Christine Kane‘s “How to be real” — with these lyrics in the first verse and chorus:

Her job was no more than a cubicle / the opposite of beautiful/her soul for a check/but her smile/tells you that she found a deeper will/she didn’t know she had until the day that she left/ amd even though she’s flying high /she can’t help but wonder why/it took her half her lifetime/just to find out / she could let herself learn how to be real / to be radiant / to be elegant/in her clumsy kind of way/oh here’s to how it feels/to be real.

You understand, of course, that I was nearly sobbing by the time she got to the chorus, and I had to stop listening. Maybe it took me four or five tries, after a week, to listen to the whole thing, and just weep on the other side. He sent this to me I think after or in the middle of our most recent struggles, but, too, when I was fully immersed in my own wondering about how I was going to make it as a writer and workshop facilitator who also had this day job that took time and energy but didn’t at all fit into the rest of my real work, a place where I felt I had to shut off my creative/writer self just to sit in a cubicle and play with numbers. This was the underside of my tears: Was he really seeing this part of me? Did he actually understand who I was trying to be? And then this, too: Could I let my father be that complicated, someone who disappointed me, who failed me, who loved me (and who I loved) beyond words and could still see who I actually was, even when I didn’t think I was sharing that with him?

My father is all music to me, a guitarist and singer who wrote songs and shared his voice often with friends and family. We grew up with folk music, the old pop songs, and  his voice. He had his own cubicle that kept him from pursuing what made him real, making music, and that cubicle looked like a family, looked like responsibility, looked like two daughters and a wife and a house in the city and how can you go off and be a musician singing folk songs when all those girls need you to support them? And he loved his work with the schools, and he shared his music with us, with all the family, he pulled up his guitar into his arms like the tenderest familiar and gave us music every chance he got.

So my friend put that mix cd into the player, and the first song was Silver and Gold, another one that my dad wrote: Won’t you give me / silver and gold / don’t want love / the heart grows cold / love won’t pay / the rent when I’m old / won’t you give me / silver and gold.

We were driving through the thick green redwood cover, past Fairfax, on our way to Tomales Bay. I said, that’s my dad’s song. He wrote that song. Who is this? I didn’t quite recognize the voice, got very quiet inside, put my fingers to my lips. Who was that singing? It didn’t quite sound like my dad now — but, I realized into the second song, Dixie Dance, it was my father then, an old recording of all my dad’s songs, maybe his set list, songs he probably recorded himself on the old reel to reel that he kept in the basement of his house in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the important music. There driving through Northern California redwoods, maybe thirty years after those songs were recorded, something in me lit up. I said to my friend, This is my dad. These are my dad’s songs. This is my dad singing in the 80s. I could hardly believe it. Here, issuing from the cd player in my little Prius, was the voice of my childhood, that rich fullness, that guitar, those particular songs. And then I heard new ones, songs of longing, songs of hope: here was some of my father’s creative work, my own backstory. Here was work he did that wasn’t about family or children — here was something of him beyond the man I know as father. What a tremendous gift.

In the car this weekend, my reaction was too deep for tears. I let the music and my dad’s voice push through me, while my friend exclaimed, delighted to get to be with this music. He sang us all the way up through Inverness, all the way to the sea, where she dozed and I played fetch with the puppy.

Again, again, again, I get to complicate what I have believed to be true about my parents, I get to be with and in a narrative less easy and more honest than ‘ they let us down, they gave us to the monster.’ So little is actually that easy, at least in the stories I’m living within. It’s hard to hold all their facets, like it can be hard to hold my own, but that hardness, I think, is just stretching beyond the story I wanted to be true of them, that they were perfect and loved us and would protect us from any bad stuff. That is just one part of our story. And then there are the songs, my father’s fingers on strings, my mother’s poetry, everything behind who they were as parents, that maybe I am well enough, now, to hold, too.

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Thoughts for prompts today: Maybe let yourself listen to a bit of How To Be Real and notice what rises for you in response. What does it mean for you to be real — or, to let your parents, partner, friend, puppy, boss, coworker, characters be real? Give yourself ten minutes, or twenty — and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thanks for your presence today, for the way you breathe into the layers that don’t resolve themselves into easy narrative, for how you hold your own and others’ complications tenderly, even when they frustrate the hell out of you. Thanks, too, always, for your words.